Graham Vincent

Member Article

Sun, sea, sand, parties and, er, rugby: Gloucester Rugby in good hands

It’s the preserve of most young men’s summers: a booze-fuelled lads holiday; sun, sea, sand, parties, girls. Most end with a hangover and a liberated wallet. But not all. Stephen Vaughan’s ended in opportunity. An opportunity that would lead - 15 years later - to him becoming CEO of one of English rugby’s biggest names.

Stephen, 39, is tasked with reviving the fortunes of Gloucester Rugby, and set a target of this season finishing in the top four of the Aviva Premiership when he took charge in November 2012.

That target will not be met - Gloucester are currently languishing in 10th place after a tumultuous season thus far. However, off the pitch, Gloucester are thriving.

The club made a profit in each of the last three years, and is set to announce growing profit in the months ahead. Turnover last year was £11.6 million. Stephen says, off the pitch, they have had “an incredible year”, and the club attracted 11 new sponsors in that time, from a legal partner, to a sin-bin sponsor, to their main club sponsor, local firm ADEY MagnaClean.

The foundations have been laid by Stephen, who is a meticulous planner and attributes his success in business to his “leadership, and DNA”, as well as his provenance.

Stephen’s first love was not rugby at all. It was quite the opposite, in fact.

In the early 1990’s, Stephen, from Birmingham, played professional football for local team Walsall, who at that time were about as close to the Premier League as rugby was to professionalism.

What does this have to do with a lads’ holiday?

Well, unfortunately, injury befell Stephen and curtailed his fledgling football career. “I decided to go away with the boys and have some fun”, he said. Before he knew it, Stephen the youngest ever rep to manage his own resort, working for Club 18-30 in Corfu, Greece.

After a heavy dose of bad luck with his injury, good luck graced Stephen in that mid-1990’s summer in the Adriatic.

He bumped in to a friend of his who was working for Club 18-30, then, after doing doing some low-level promoting, was approached by a director who happened to be there.

After working in several roles for Club 18-30, both in Corfu and in the UK, Stephen became head of worldwide sales in 2003 for Thomas Cook, then managing director of Club 18-30 four years later - a meteoric rise for a man who started his Thomas Cook odyssey with no qualifications (Club 18-30 is, of course, owned by Thomas Cook). He masterminded an upsurge for the company, which went from making a profit to turning over £3 million.

Stephen, who now has a Business Management degree from Loughborough University, said: “I am constantly interested in personal development. I lead by example, and make necessary decisions. I was always the captain of the football teams in which I played, I am so frustrated by procrastination. Leadership is in my DNA, I lead from the front.”

He also states he is a “real change agent”, and it was these itchy feet, and an opportunity to be a part of history, that led to his next career move.

The London Olympics in 2012 united Britain, and brought the best athletes in the world to this country. Thomas Cook had been appointed a breaks and packages partner of the games, and Stephen was to head it up.

“In my DNA I get bored. To be involved in such a major event was a unique experience. I made a lot of valuable contacts and learned a great many things”, he said with an ebullient air.

It was this learning curve that engendered the confidence in him to now prophecize that Gloucester Rugby will be comfortable in the Aviva rugby Premiership’s top four this time next year.

Gloucester are the envy of most Aviva Premiership clubs, boasting star names such as Freddie Burns (although, not for much longer, he is leaving at the end of the current season), Mike Tindall (husband of Zara Phillips and 2003 Rugby World Cup winner with England), Billy Twelvetrees, Henry Trinder, James Simpson-Daniel, Charlie Sharples and Jonny May. It is the forwards, though, that have struggled to provide a platform for their elegant, rapid backline.

Stephen said: “We want to grow profit but fully invest in the team. Our struggles this season have stemmed from our forward pack, so we have been proactive in making changes - we have signed internationals John Afoa and Richard Hibbard for next season.

“We have the set up to be successful at Gloucester. It has been a devilishly tough year, but strategic plans are in place, as is recruitment.

“We have implemented robust measures in terms of costing - indeed, we commissioned a total spending audit across all parts of the business - and sought to implement new revenue streams.”

His “fresh pair of eyes” have rejuvenated Gloucester off the field. The club have started a lotto business, with funds going back into the club, they launched a bespoke betting site in January, announced a partnership with Ebay-owned online ticket exchange StubHub, and brought in new caterers to improve the matchday experience of supporters.

Stephen identified four key fundamentals to success when he took over as CEO; Profit, Team, Partners, Supporters. It is under these pillars that success is underpinned and that he judges his staff against.

Of course, success on and off the field is reciprocal. Despite the team’s struggles, finances have not been hit. Attendances are only slightly down (1% on last year) - “a lot of games have been moved to a Sunday, which is not conducive to generating a rugby atmosphere” - but expectations are that they will pick up by the end of the season in May. Supporters now “have the full package” at Kingsholm, Gloucester’s cavernous and raucous home ground since 1891.

There are five bars within drop goal distance of Kingsholm, their hospitality offering is now a much higher standard, and Stephen has introduced themed games, such as ladies day for tomorrow’s encounter with Harlequins.

Add in the TV deals with BT Sport and the fact that Kingsholm will host four games - the most of any club rugby stadium - in the 2015 Rugby World Cup, and Gloucester Rugby is in “pretty good nick”.

Gloucester pay their players’ wages right up to the limit of the salary cap, which is to be increased £500k next season to £5 million. Stephen believes that with the progress made off the pitch, success on it is inevitable, and a requisite for his tenure.

He said: “Success in the medium and long term for Gloucester Rugby as a business depends on success. If that success is not achieved, we will likely need to recalibrate the business. Of course there is a link between performance on and off the pitch.

“We can achieve our targets. I, and we as a club, are ambitious. Whether this is sustainable over four or five years is success is not forthcoming remains to be seen.”

The rugby fan and the businessman in Stephen are straining every fibre to ensure success comes to Gloucester Rugby.

Running a rugby club, Stephen concedes, is not as much fun as his Club 18-30 days when Gloucester are losing, but when winning, it is the best job in the world.

“Running a rugby club, and indeed Club 18-30, requires a particular type of beast. Both are addictive, and both great fun. Club 18-30 was the toughest job ever, but it kept me young. That gives me the vigour to succeed today with Gloucester.”

Whether Gloucester, and Stephen, succeed only time will tell. One thing is for certain, though - it will be far from dull.

This was posted in Bdaily's Members' News section by Graham Vincent .

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